Thursday, September 29, 2016 10:45 am ·  0 Comments
Never have I been at a public gathering more moving than that of the opening of the African American Museum adjacent the Washington Monument in the American capital a few days ago. Given the rapid rise in racial tensions in the aftermath of yet another fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man, the timing of the celebration was a welcome moment for sober reflection.
Beyond the incredible mass of humanity present in the Mall, what really struck me was the transcendent quietness accompanying Barrack Obama’s entire address. Beneath dark, threatening skies, each word carried a psychic punch of palpable collective grief, just as it offered potent reminders of the profound contributions African Americans have made to all facets of North American culture.
After the ringing of the Bell of Freedom taken from an old African American church that marked the end of the ceremony, the crowd dispersed as peacefully as it had gathered. Left with my own thoughts about my experiences with the ugly spectre of racism, I found myself wishing such ugly behaviour didn’t exist north of the border, all the while knowing better.
My own introduction to racism occurred when I was a youth growing up in a privileged neighbourhood just outside of Toronto. At the request of a black man who wanted to move into the neighbourhood, a proxy was circulated by his realtor to find out how many residents were opposed. As it turned out, it was an extremely close vote with a little more than 50 percent in favour. The black man in question, jazz legend Oscar Peterson.
Want to know how many admitted to casting a no vote to a black man from the neighbourhood? You can probably guess, not a single person.
I share this story because it strikes me as illustrative of our own unique Canadian brand of racism. Not as overt as seems to be the case in the United States, or violent, instead, it comes across as far more hidden, innocuous, even apologetic at times. And yet, I cannot help but wonder if that makes it even harder to address, precisely because it has been consigned to the veiled corners and closed off regions of our souls and communities. Outta sight, outta mind.
Regardless, racism is no less corrosive to the health and wellbeing of many black African and Caribbean Canadians, not to mention a host of other immigrant populations, and the communities in which they reside. Many who are deprived of dignity and a healthy sense of self-worth dealt from the first day of living in Canada. Systematically discriminated against in the workplace, or by the police who are supposed to be charged with protecting us all, they stand largely isolated and alone. Many eke out a living on meagre wages with few opportunities for advancement through education and training. All in all, it’s far from a rosy picture and stands in sharp contrast to the fiction we like to tell ourselves about Canada’s ‘multicultural mosaic’ at community gatherings.
Of significance, history has shown that racism escalates during times of economic stagnation such as we have been mired in for close to a decade. A strong case could therefore be made that one of the most effective ways to combat racism, or at least prevent its spread, is to educate people about the real reasons for our economic malaise. Reasons that have nothing to do with skin colour, or immigrants ‘taking jobs’, or the ‘burden’ of helping refugees. And a lot more to do with a system rigged to benefit the privileged few in our midst.
And yet, even here I cannot help but see a tremendous opportunity in the making should we make a conscious choice to stand united against the true cause of our collective suffering, rather than allow ourselves to be divided along racial lines. We could prevail to the benefit of all, emancipate ourselves from the mantra of “never enough”, and in so doing generate a society aimed at meeting the basic needs of one and all.
May the Bells of Freedom Chime indeed!